Flying the Flag for Picasso’s Guernica
Dr Benjamin Hannavy Cousen, artist and author of the article Memory, Power and Place: Where is Guernica, reviews Nicola Ashmore’s 2017 book, Guernica Remakings.
In a recent essay in the London Review of Books, the art historian T. J. Clark provocatively proposes that ‘Perhaps… we turn to Guernica with a kind of nostalgia’. He continues: ‘We go on hungering for the epic in it, because we recoil from the alternative — violence as the price paid for a broken sociality, violence as leading nowhere, violence as “collateral damage”, violence as spectacle, violence as eternal return’.
Nicola Ashmore’s excellent and beautifully-produced book Guernica Remakings is a record of some of the ‘afterlives’ of Picasso’s Guernica, a painting that can retrospectively seem to have been made specifically to haunt the world in continuous afterlife. Most specifically it draws on a 2012-14 Brighton-based project that remade Guernica as a protest banner, and which was exhibited in a show called Guernica Remakings in the summer of 2017. The book is more than a sumptuous souvenir of this project, which it contextualises in relation to what Ashmore calls the ‘international phenomena of reworking Guernica in the twenty-first century’. These include other art projects, which are described in detail, and historical incidents, which are perhaps less a reworking than part of Guernica’s proliferating and layered story. One of these, for example, is the infamous covering up of the Rockefeller Guernica tapestry in 2003 when Colin Powell delivered the speech on Weapons of Mass Destruction that heralded the invasion of Iraq. (This incident felt more shocking to me when reading about it here than it did at the time, perhaps because of the realisation that such chilling chutzpah is not the sole preserve of Donald Trump.)
Ashmore’s book is also a record of an activism and protest movement currently engaged at the very brink of the kind of violence Clark speaks of, and it is here, particularly when describing the constructive and community-led choices that went into Remakings, that Ashmore’s narrative is most affecting.
Having provided the historical and art historical context of Picasso’s original painting, and rightly ascribing the currently potent notion that the creation and spread of terror was the aim of the 1937 Condor Legion bombing raid, Ashmore devotes substantial time to three particular projects before turning to the Remakings banner itself. These are, firstly, The Nature of the Beast, a 2009-10 art project at London’s Whitechapel Gallery where the Powell incident and the ‘materiality’ (and boardroom nature), of war were addressed. The second focus is the Keiskamma Guernicas, a South African project begun in 2010 in which textiles are used to recreate Guernica and make it speak to poverty, HIV/AIDS and the clash between modernity and tradition. (I’m simplifying here – but it is interesting to note that Picasso’s original also showed the horror of modernity by showing nothing more modern than a lightbulb.) The third project is Guernica a Play, and much of this chapter consists of an interview between Ashmore and the Canadian playwright Erika Luckert.
Ashmore is right to focus on these works and events, rather than, say, cartoonist Vasco Gargalo’s 2016 Alepponica, which is briefly discussed and reproduced in the book’s introduction. Alepponicca seems over-determined and knowing, and the resulting image is somehow disrespectful both to Guernica and, more importantly, to Aleppo (although I concede that it functions well as a cartoon). It serves to demonstrate that pastiche alone does not achieve the memory-work that characterize the more thoughtful engagements with Guernica, including Remakings. Ashmore does a good job of bringing these moments out, for example, when discussing the blankets that are used in the Keiskamma Guernica as a holding-to-account of the withdrawal of hospice funding.
These accounts of the specificity of the creative thought processes that went into the various recreations of Guernica are the great strength of the book and I imagine they come from Ashmore’s obviously passionate engagement as an artist herself. I’m slightly less convinced by more general comments such as when the Keiskamma Guernica project is described as ‘a collective remaking of Picasso’s Guernica that resists any complicity with the government’s negligence’. This slips a little into the kind of general academic speak that imposes a meaning on the work rather than allowing the work to speak for itself (Alepponica does the same thing in its entirety). This is a rather harsh criticism to make, however, especially in the light of the thoughtful and subtle way in which the Brighton Remakings banner was created, and Ashmore talks us through the various rejected directions that were taken before the final image was decided upon. It is genuinely moving stuff. In her telling it makes absolute sense that various political badges that were originally sewn onto the banner, were covered up, and yet the Suffragette colours of purple, white and green were retained. I would like to have read more about the personal creative processes that went into the Remakings banner, as well as its own afterlives which are touched upon but not greatly expanded. As Ashmore says, the banner ‘is accumulating its own socio-political and historical significance’. Perhaps some of the discussion of Luckert’s play could have been sacrificed for this. Reading the interview with the playwright is interesting but frustrating, not least because the play sounds fascinating, but the reader is unable to really know what is being talked about without seeing the performance or script.
This book is best read alongside viewing the brilliantly-produced short videos on http://guernicaremakings.com/. One of the banner makers, Maude Casey talks of the ‘numinous power’ of Guernica. The book Guernica Remakings is an excellent record of an impressive and humbling project that shows how art, and Guernica in particular can be deployed to resist the very violence that T. J. Clark says will make us nostalgic for Guernica. Ashmore’s book is a moving and compelling testament to stand alongside Clark’s conclusion: ‘And does not the image Guernica presents remain our last best hope? For “vulnerability, affiliation and collective resistance” still seem, to some of us, realities worth fighting for’.